October 29th, 2012

QR Codes – Shaping the Future of Genealogy

When I began this Blog I never dreamed I would one day be writing a technical piece on anything, let alone QR codes. In fact if you had asked me three months ago what a QR code, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I know Q&A and Q-tips, but QR codes? I hadn’t the foggiest – until I recently visited a local cemetery searching for tombstone inscriptions. I came across a particular headstone featuring what looked like some sort of encrypted Egyptian or alien coding. Coding it was, but neither anceient Egyptian nor alien. It was very modern, and obviously recently attached to the headstone. In fact I had seen something like this before, in the newspaper. You have probably seen one yourself without realizing it is called a QR code.

What is a QR code?

Besides appearing in newspaper ads, you may have also seen QR codes like the one pictured on movie posters, library shelves, or even restaurant windows. Now you can see them more and more on cemetery headstones; and it actually makes good genealogical sense to place them there. They are an excellent way to place a large amount of information in a tiny space.

QR stands for “quick response”, and they are designed to be read by modern cell phones. QR codes may contain text, geographical coordinates, links to urls and now genealogical data. They were originally designed for the automotive industry to track car parts, but are being constantly incorporated into many other industries and for storing personal information. QR codes are being used more and more on historical sites where it is not practical for instance to place a video screen. Instead the visitor can scan the code with their Smartphone, and access the video online from there. The downside is that if you don’t have a device equipped to read the code you can’t access the information.

Genealogical Uses for QR Codes 

Many genealogists are using QR codes to link to family trees by adding them to their websites, referring users to databases, and providing citations at the bottom of various documents. One of the most popular genealogical uses however is using them to provide additional information on headstones. Rather than have the entire family history displayed on a tombstone, families are providing a QR code with links to that family tree, website, or biographical information for the particular individual. The memorial information attached to the headstone might include pictures, obituaries, and even video clips of the person’s life.

The QR codes are placed on decorative plaques for the graves that they will adorn and are designed to make the memorial experience a richer one for families and friends. Although they are a useful way to share family histories, there are some limitations to using them. The obvious one is that not everybody will have the technology to access the information. But although your cell phone may not have internet access, you might still be able to take note of the website address where the information is held. That way you can visit the site from your own computer when you’re at home.

Are QR Codes Safe? 

Many people are sceptical of scanning QR codes as because they are coded, you can’t be sure where they will take you. There are of course risks of QR codes linking to malicious websites, though the risk of that happening in a cemetery or historical site is minimal. There are however malicious codes that can be attached over legitimate ones, and open up your sensitive data to unscrupulous criminals. They can be useful to genealogists, but like any digital technology, you should be aware that there is a risk when accessing them.

It is very likely that any headstones containing QR codes are safe. The case online may be different however, so make sure that any site you might scan them from is trusted by its other users. It is exciting that such technology can be used to enhance the genealogical experience however, and it can definitely protect tombstones from being damaged due to bad rubbing practices.